Blindness is no barrier: How Amy Bower got her dream job as an oceanographer

Amy Bower kneeling on deck of boat.

Photo credit: David Fisichella

September 29, 2014

There is no limit for those who can sea. No, that’s not a typo! I meant to say “sea” (as in the ocean), because this is a story about a woman who does not let blindness stand in her way…no matter what. Amy Bower, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), who I met at the CSUN conference in San Diego last year.

I went down to Woods Hole on Cape Cod to see her at her workplace and to inquire about how she does what she does. Let me tell you a bit about her…Amy began to lose her vision when she was in her 20s and in the middle of her graduate studies in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.

With the help of magnification devices such as CCTVs, she managed to finish her doctorate and begin her career at WHOI. Over the past 20 years, Amy has become a senior scientist in physical oceanography. She studied the physical forces that make water move and led research excursions to waters surrounding the Seychelles Islands, Somalia, and, most recently, Iceland.

Now, Amy’s vision is almost gone and she uses JAWS screen reader software and Magic Magnification by Freedom Scientific on her computers, as well as apps and VoiceOver on her iPhone and iPad, in order to read any web information or documents that she needs to. These products provide her access to almost anything any oceanographer would need in terms of research papers, websites, etc. Her office has a gorgeous view of the sea and beach at Woods Hole and she has three monitors on her desk as well as a tactile printer.

Amy reads braille, but at a very basic level — she uses it sometimes for labeling. Amy says she would like to learn braille, but believes that the time required to become fluent would not be worth the payback. With the help of technology, sometimes a sighted assistant, and her determination to overcome any challenges that blindness throws her way, she works side by side with sighted scientists and does the exact same activities that they do.

She sometimes has to modify her behaviors and inform her colleagues about her needs, in order to perform at the same level. For example, when she runs scientific staff meetings, she lets the attendees know that they have to say what they are thinking — they can’t just nod, shake their head or roll their eyes. So, part of making sure that you are getting all the information you need is informing people how they need to act.

Another example where she feels that it is harder for her than others is networking. Others can walk into a room and see a name tag or a face and know who is there and who they want to speak with. Amy cannot tell who is in the room and therefore might miss out on having a conversation with someone she would like to meet.

She also says she feels self-conscious on the research cruises in terms of moving around the ship. She says “How many people have worked with someone bouncing around with a cane? I still intersect objects, hit chairs and poles, and feel awkward at times.” This is despite the fact that most people — sighted or not — would have trouble walking around a boat given the waves and wind.

The main area where she wishes assistive technology could improve is in tactile graphics. Amy is creating and studying very complex graphs which can be reproduced with tactile graphics, but are not adequate in terms of providing the detailed nuances of the data being shown. (See example graph to the bottom right).

Graph of salinity.

We had fish and chips and salad together at a fantastic, small restaurant in Woods Hole. I asked Amy, “How do you do this? How do you get past the hurdles that low vision throws in the way?”

Her response: “Just sheer persistence…I am very stubborn and highly motivated. I had a passion for natural sciences since I was in high school and I just couldn’t let it go.”

Amy is one of the most amazing people I have ever met — she overcame the odds stacked against her in order to compete at an equal level with sighted scientists in a field that is always changing and requires new learning every day. She is committed to helping young blind people know that they can do anything if they want to…just don’t give up.

Amy can be reached at abower@WHOI.edu.

Laura Matz is the director of sales & marketing at Perkins Products.

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